'Standup soldier' who killed Iraqi journalist had troubled past

Sacramento BeeJuly 14, 2008 

KRT WORLD NEWS STORY SLUGGED: USIRAQ-REPORTERKILLED KRT PHOTOGRAPH BY PAULINE LUBENS/SAN JOSE MERCURY NEWS (June 29) An Iraqi special correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers, Yasser Salihee, was shot and killed in Baghdad on June 24. The shot appears to have been fired by a U.S. military sniper as Salihee drove toward a joint patrol of U.S. and Iraqi troops, though there were Iraqi soldiers in the area who may have also been shooting at the time. (lde) 2005

Dr. Yasser Salihee's body lay in his compact car on a busy Baghdad street for everyone to see.

The doctor, employed as a journalist by the now defunct Knight-Ridder Newspapers group, had been shot by an American soldier who claimed that Salihee refused to slow down and who believed he presented a threat.

Though the details are disputed, the results were not: The June 24, 2005, shooting outraged the very population the military was trying to win over.

"Before the accident I loved the Americans … but after the accident, I hate all the Army," said Salihee’s widow, Raghad al Jabar al Wazan, also a medical doctor. "All my neighbors were hating the Americans."

The shooter seemed beyond suspicion, with a resume fit for a character from a John Wayne movie: son of a Vietnam-era fighter pilot, former elite Army Ranger, sniper team leader, accomplished hunter and marksman, aspiring wilderness guide with a trunk full of awards and a small fan club of admiring young soldiers.

"This kid was a good soldier," said former Louisiana National Guard Maj. Andre Vige, who conducted an administrative inquiry into the shooting. "Good outfit. Good guys. One of the premier combat brigades of the National Guard. They were the standard bearer."

But a yearlong examination by the Sacramento Bee found that the shooter, Staff Sgt. Joseph J. Romero, brought a long, troubled past with him to Iraq, and the Guard unit Vige praised was riddled with misfits, drug users and soldiers with criminal records — at least two of them former mental patients.

At the time that he shot Salihee Romero was under investigation for selling cocaine, military records show.

Days before the shooting, Romero threatened to kill a fellow soldier who reported him to the Army's Criminal Investigation Command or CID. Three weeks later, the drug allegations would prompt the Army to strip Romero of his leadership, bar him from missions and take away his large-caliber sniper rifle.

And less than three months after the shooting, on Sept. 9, 2005, Romero was sentenced to 14 months' confinement and given a bad conduct discharge, convicted of selling cocaine, possessing other drugs, obstructing justice and communicating a threat.

Salihee would go on to posthumously receive the Overseas Press Club of America's top reporting award, with other Knight Ridder journalists, for reporting from Iraq. Knight Ridder would be bought in June 2006 by The McClatchy Co. which continues to operate the Baghdad news bureau where Salihee worked and owns the Sacramento Bee, as well as 29 other U.S. newspapers.

Vige, whose investigation of the Salihee shooting was made public three weeks after Romero was sentenced, said he was never aware that Romero was under criminal investigation at the time he shot Salihee. He said he never considered doing a background check on Romero because he "considered it irrelevant."

"Every time I met with Romero he was extremely professional," said Vige, now retired from the National Guard. "This was a stand-up soldier."

Romero is one of more than 70 soldiers and Marines that the Bee's examination found with questionable backgrounds who were linked to incidents in the military, most occurring in Iraq.

Romero's history was similar to that of many of the others: financial difficulties, domestic troubles, minor but persistent criminal histories, allegations of substance abuse — or combinations of the four.

"CID (Army Criminal Investigation Command) had a long rap sheet on him," said Col. John Dunlap of the Louisiana National Guard, who supervised two drug investigations of Romero in Iraq. "There was a ton of stuff, and it was like he'd slip out every time. Nothing would happen to him."

The Bee made numerous attempts to seek Romero's comments, sending Federal Express packages to him and his attorney and making two trips to Louisiana. Romero agreed to a meeting in January, but when a reporter and photographer arrived at his family's home, they found only his stepfather, mother and attorney there.

Frank R. Durand, retired from the Louisiana State Police and currently a lieutenant assigned to the evidence department of the local Sheriff's Office, said his stepson had changed his mind and "there will be no comment."

TURBULENT PATH TO SERVICE

The earliest public criminal record on Romero in his hometown of Lafayette shows that on April 15, 1990, he was charged in municipal court with simple assault along with his friend, Michael Wayne Boleyn, Jr., who was charged with battery.

Ten months later, on Feb. 14, 1991, Lafayette Parish sheriff's detectives learned that Romero was visiting gun dealers to price a stolen shotgun. Five days later, sheriff's records show, Romero told detectives he got the shotgun from Boleyn in exchange for a deer hunting stand, a water slide and a pair of rubber boots.

Authorities subsequently accused Boleyn in a string of residential burglaries and, Boleyn said, he agreed to join the Louisiana National Guard at the suggestion of law enforcement officers. As a result, he said, the prosecutor dropped six of the eight burglary charges, and he was sentenced to five years' probation.

Boleyn, during an interview at his home near Lafayette, said he and Romero had been close friends. He claimed the two had committed the burglaries together and that he has been angry ever since because he took all the blame.

"Joe was in it just as much as me," Boleyn said. "Nothing happened to him."

Carrol Clavelle, who investigated the burglary as a detective for the local Sheriff's Office, said Romero provided valuable information about a series of burglaries, which was one of the reasons he wasn't charged with possession of stolen property.

On Feb. 5, 1991, five days after Clavelle was assigned to the burglary case, Romero entered the Army.

THE 'JUAREZ RANGERS'

Romero's Army career soared in the months following his enlistment, and he became a member of the elite 75th Army Ranger Regiment, assigned to Fort Benning, Ga.

His career crashed even faster.

As tensions mounted in Mogadishu, Somalia, in the summer of 1993, Romero and other Rangers trained at Fort Bliss, Texas, not far from the Mexican border. During a break in training, Romero and other Rangers crossed the border into Juarez.

Donald "Donnie" Lee Thomas, Romero's supervisor then, said the Rangers were ordered not to go to Mexico, but he drove Romero and several others to Juarez. He knew he couldn’t stop them, he said, so he sought to ensure their safe return.

Discipline was swift and harsh.

Col. Danny McKnight, now retired, said he forbade any of the 35 or so Rangers who'd violated his order from deploying to Somalia. Rangers who obeyed his orders were sent to reinforce Rangers who had just fought the now-famous Battle of Mogadishu, subject of the book and movie "Black Hawk Down."

That battle made Rangers famous everywhere; the trip to Mexico made Romero and the others infamous among follow Rangers, who dubbed them, "The Juarez Rangers."

Many of the disciplined soldiers left the Rangers altogether, but some, including Romero, were accepted into a platoon of misfits at the Ranger school, assigned to play enemy soldiers but no longer eligible to deploy as real Rangers.

"When I got there, there was a lot of — how should I say — ash and trash," recalled former 1st Sgt. Sean T. Kelly, who took over the platoon in 1994 on a mission to rid it of drug users.

ALLEGATIONS IN MICHIGAN

Drug allegations against Romero grew more serious after he left Fort Benning.

At Fort Richardson, Alaska, on Oct. 10, 1996, he was identified as the target of an Army criminal investigation into cocaine use, but records show he was not charged due to a lack of evidence. And in the tiny town of Newaygo, Mich., where Romero lived for about two years after leaving the Army in 1999, several people told The Bee that Romero openly used drugs, including methamphetamine, and was involved in drug sales.

Dean Allen Robinson, identified by Michigan law enforcement authorities as an associate of a Latino drug kingpin, said during an interview at the Michigan state prison in Carson City that Romero worked for him in his logging business, and he regularly supplied Romero with drugs and used drugs with him. Romero, Robinson said, also helped him prepare drugs for sale in exchange for free samples.

Romero and the 21-year-old Louisiana woman who moved to Michigan with him also had financial problems. In November 2001, they were the subjects of a complaint filed in the judicial district court in White Cloud, Mich., for $984 in unpaid rent. They subsequently moved into a mobile home and quit paying the rent, said the landlord, Mark Presler, who lives with Robinson's sister.

After he returned to Louisiana, Romero's relationship with his girlfriend ended, but his financial problems continued and he became the target of a paternity case that would linger for six months before being dismissed.

'UNIT HAS A DRUG PROBLEM'

In May 2004, Romero entered the Louisiana National Guard and, later that year, headed to Iraq. Within days of his arrival, he was accused of selling Valium.

"I was offered Valiums by Sgt. Romero," said an October 2004 handwritten statement to Army investigators from Spc. Jeremy L. Breaux.

Romero denied the allegations, said Col. Dunlap of the Louisiana National Guard, and his superiors refused to prosecute, calling Romero "a superstar."

Still, the allegations helped expose a larger drug problem within the 256th Infantry Brigade Combat Team.

"The unit has a drug problem," Army prosecutor Capt. Margaret Kurz said during a court-martial of one of its members.

Records obtained by The Bee of all disciplinary actions against soldiers of the 256th in Iraq show more than 400 soldiers accused of misconduct — at least 85 for drug-related offenses — within the unit, whose makeup is roughly half Louisiana National Guard members. Dunlap, however, attributed the number to more vigilance and the large number of lawyers in the unit.

Pvt. James A. Vige, not related to the investigator with the same last name, was found in Iraq lying on a bathroom floor with a syringe next to his needle-marked arms. Vige had previously been arrested by Fullerton, Calif., police for showing up at a military post under the influence of drugs, with a syringe in his helmet bag.

"I shouldn’t have been over there with a gun," Vige told The Bee. "I've been in psychiatric treatment and involved in drugs, and they knew all about it."

'IN HARM’S WAY'

Pvt. Vige's overdose led straight to Romero.

"Vige started naming names," Dunlap said, adding that the list was 20 names long and "Romero was on the list."

This time Romero's denials didn't stop the Army.

On June 10, 2005, just hours after Vige's overdose, soldiers of the 256th gathered for a barbecue outside Romero's trailer, where he got a call with news of the investigation.

"He was worried, nervous … paranoid," Staff Sgt. Don A. Gatheright would later testify, adding that Romero was "wigging out."

Gatheright said he agreed to hide Romero's marijuana in the unit's arms room, where Gatheright worked.

When investigators searched Romero's room, they found only a small bottle of prescription amphetamine salts in the bottom drawer of his nightstand. The drug is used to treat attention-deficit disorder and hyperactivity and side effects can include loss of motor control. People with a history of drug abuse are warned not to take the drug.

That night, court-martial records say, Romero threatened to kill Vige and he also threatened Murphy, believing they had implicated him.

The drug allegations would prompt superiors to pull Romero from missions, strip him of his leadership and take away his .50-caliber sniper rifle.

But 21 days before his superiors took away that rifle, Romero had gone on another mission.

'THEY WON'T FORGET'

Taking advantage of a rare Friday off from his job as a translator and correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers, Dr. Yasser Salihee went for a haircut. His widow, Raghad, who conducted her own informal inquiry into the shooting, told The Bee that the shop apparently was closed, so her husband headed home.

He drove toward an intersection patrolled by a small group of Iraqi soldiers and Louisiana National Guard members, including Romero, guarding a building being searched.

"The driver did not see the American forces because they were hiding behind trees, residential houses and a shopping area," the owner of a nearby ice kiosk told Iraqi authorities.

Seeing Salihee's white Daewoo Espero approach the intersection rapidly, an Iraqi soldier ran out, trying to stop him.

"During this time an American sniper fired toward the driver and killed him," the soldier told Iraqi police.

One round hit Salihee in the head, killing him.

Maj. Andrei Vige, the officer assigned to conduct an administrative inquiry, wrote in his report that Salihee ignored pleas by soldiers to stop and kept driving toward Romero, who said in a written statement that he fired a warning shot and a shot into the car's engine. At that point, the report says, another soldier shot out the right front tire, but Salihee kept driving, swerving around a parked vehicle as he continued to move toward the soldiers.

Vige suggested that Salihee may have been distracted and didn't see the soldiers.

Salihee's widow said that when her brother arrived at the accident scene, he found Salihee's foot pressed against the brake, which she believes indicates he may have been trying to stop when he was shot.

Raghad, who remarried and is living in New York, remains bitter. She said Vige visited her after the shooting and handed her an envelope with $5,000 inside, $2,500 for the loss of the car and $2,500 for the loss of her husband.

"I told him, 'You tell me sorry and then you tell me that my husband is the cost of the car,' " she said.

Less than three months after the shooting, on Sept. 9, 2005, Romero was sentenced to 14 months' confinement and given a bad conduct discharge, convicted of selling cocaine, possessing other drugs, obstructing justice and communicating a threat.

During an interview in his Lafayette-area office, Vige said he never saw the complete autopsy report, never got the bullet for ballistic tests and wasn't able to inspect the vehicle until two weeks after the shooting, after it had been washed.

Though Vige disputed many of Raghad’s claims, he agreed that what happened immediately after the shooting enraged local residents.

The American soldiers left quickly, leaving Salihee's body inside the car, unguarded, and allowing evidence to become contaminated. The platoon leader told Vige that a commander, code-named "Bandit 6," ordered the platoon from the area, but Vige said Bandit 6 told him he gave no such order.

"How would you like it if an outsider came to your neighborhood and shot your neighbor and left?" Vige said. "They won’t forget."

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